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  1. The Education Gradebook

Romano: Maybe Gates effort missed the real way to reform education: help the poor kids

Gorrie Elementary 5th grade teacher Nicolas Catania talks to a group of fellow teachers during the Moving Toward Student Centered Learning workshop at EcET2. 

Hundreds of Hillsborough County teachers attended the all-day training and morale-boosting event hosted by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. [LUIS SANTANA  |   Times]
Gorrie Elementary 5th grade teacher Nicolas Catania talks to a group of fellow teachers during the Moving Toward Student Centered Learning workshop at EcET2. Hundreds of Hillsborough County teachers attended the all-day training and morale-boosting event hosted by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. [LUIS SANTANA | Times]
Published Dec. 15, 2015

What if we were wrong about education reforms? What if our solutions have been largely ineffective because our aim was grossly incorrect?

What if the whole stinking reform movement was based on a flawed theory that has not only wasted hundreds of millions of dollars, but also jeopardized the educational dreams of our neediest children?

I have to ask after reading the report by Marlene Sokol in Sunday's Tampa Bay Times that detailed the cost overruns and mixed results stemming from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation's $100 million grant to Hillsborough County.

Just consider some of these details:

• An entire new level of bureaucracy was created with the addition of about 150 teacher evaluators. Worse yet, many of Hillsborough's best teachers left the classroom to accept these new jobs.

• The largest share of teacher raises went to educators at well-to-do schools in the suburbs and not those facing the greatest challenges in Tampa's poorest neighborhoods.

• Nearly $50 million was spent on consultants in Hillsborough. Not teachers. Not computers. Not books. No, that $50 million was given, presumably, to deep thinkers.

And yet, results suggest the latest test scores in Hillsborough are separated along economic lines, which has been pretty much true as far back as anyone can recall. Not just in Hillsborough, but most everywhere you look, including the Pinellas County elementary schools detailed in the Times' "Failure Factories" series.

Which is why I ask:

What if we're fixing the wrong problem?

Much of the reform movement — not just the Gates people, but Jeb Bush's foundation and our Legislature's entire accountability system — has been focused on monitoring teachers.

The idea is that if we A) weed out the bad teachers and B) reward the better teachers, then C) all of our educational problems will be fixed.

I agree A is a fine idea. I think B is, too. I just don't think A and B will automatically lead us to C.

The premise that teachers are the problem ignores the reality that poverty is the most reliable indicator of a student's performance.

So, why are we wasting so much time and money, and creating so many extra standardized tests, simply to create fancy teacher evaluations?

Granted, school administrators have been lax in chasing bad apples from the profession. Teacher evaluations have bordered on fantasy-style fiction for far too long.

But why upend the entire educational system for that problem?

Figure out a simpler, more direct way to ensure teacher accountability, and then tackle the real problem plaguing America.

And that is the educational gap.

Instead of hiring 150 teacher evaluators in Hillsborough, why not hire 150 additional teachers or tutors for schools in low-income areas? Why not increase incentives for teachers willing to stay in these tougher environments?

Instead of spending $50 million on out-of-state consultants, why not invest in classroom technology for students whose parents can't afford laptops and tablets? Instead of sending more money to for-profit testing companies as our Legislature loves to do, why not give individual school districts more budget flexibility to attack their unique problems?

Not only will these solutions help the neediest children, but they also will keep the rest of the school district from being negatively affected by needless reforms.

What if there is a better way to reform schools?